Part of the American Dream for many is financial independence. Even with an improving economy, several households continue to carry debt that can create challenges when seeking a loan, say the experts of the nonprofit American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC).

“Excessive debt can harm relationships, ruin retirement plans and limit the chances of taking out a car or home loan,” says ACCC President and CEO Steve Trumble. “No one scripts financial disarray as a part of their life plan. Fortunately, there is a way out from under the oppressive weight of debt. Make this the year you tighten up your own personal spending and sharpen your long-term money plans.”

Whether you are struggling to erase debt or want to stay financially secure, the ACCC recommends the following:

1. Don’t live beyond your means. You can’t always control the amount of money you make, but you can control the money you spend. One way to avoid overspending is to carry cash instead of a debit or credit card. It’s harder to overspend when you carry cash. Unlike credit or debit cards, which can go over the limit or into a negative balance, you can’t slide past zero when you carry cash. If you decide to carry a card, limit spending to only what you can afford to pay off at the end of the month.

2. Pay more towards your monthly minimum
. If you are struggling to pay off a credit card with a high interest rate, make sure to pay more towards your monthly minimum. One way to quickly plan out your payments is to use an online debt payoff calculator to give yourself an idea of the date in which you will be finished paying it off.

How Can I Payoff My Credit Card Debt Sooner? Use the Castle & Cooke Mortgage Credit Card Calculator to find out.

3. Invest in the future. One of the best ways to plan a financially secure future is to save toward your own retirement through a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan. If you don’t participate, you’re missing a golden opportunity to save for retirement while lowering your tax burden on those savings.

4. Keep an emergency fund. Always prepare for an emergency. Set aside a portion of each paycheck, and save a minimum of 9-12 months of expenses in a separate interest-earning account. The funds will help cover expenses in the event of a job loss, car accident, house repairs or other unforeseen events.

5. Insure yourself. Even if your job does not supply it, make sure your medical, disability, home and automobile insurance policies are in order. Disaster could take any form – a car breaks down, a major home fire or an automobile accident that leads to pricey legal action. Insurance gives you peace of mind. With it, you know that if anything happens to you, your family or your business, you will be financially secure.